Monday, June 20, 2016

Jesus Interrupted...and Interrupting

FIFTH SUNDAY after PENTECOST- Preached at Nazareth Lutheran
Church, Rural Hall, NC   
(This sermon was dedicated to my dear friend, Sara Anderson.)

    Here we are, in the season after Pentecost, the long green season, that
is sometimes referred to as “ordinary time”- which is appropriate for so
many reasons, since most of us live day after day of our “ordinary lives”
throughout these months. And yet, because this is also the summer, we
may interrupt the everyday routine with vacations, trips, visits, activities to
which the long, hot, more leisurely days of summer lend themselves.

    But Luke’s gospel will have none of it…no vacations…no sense of
ordinariness. No…again and again, Luke has Jesus being interrupted by
the unexpected…by people and events which draw and demand his
attention. Two Sundays ago, it was a funeral procession; last week, it
was an uninvited woman at a dinner party; today, the interruption is a
man living naked among the tombs, among the dead…a man who has
been literally given up for dead by his family and community because of a
condition they could not understand, which they could not handle…forced
to live naked on the outskirts, on the margins. He no longer has a  life,
life, in any meaningful sense, rather being chained among the graves to
give the residents of his community a sense of security, (though Luke
tells us the man often breaks the shackles, driven by his inner demons.)

    It is here, in the region of the Gerasenes, a Gentile region across the
Sea of Galilee from Jesus' usual haunts, that Jesus in turn interrupts the
lives of the people living there. We’ve heard the story, know the story...
but can you picture the story? The naked man running toward Jesus,
crying out in a loud voice…a man obviously in the throes of powers
beyond his own, crying out in his pain and frustration, “What have you to
do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The disciples cringing and
hanging back, as we so often do when confronted by people in the grip of
mental illness, confronted by people who look different or act differently
from us. And there is Jesus, facing down the forces which had captivated
this man- without fear, with a determination and compassion which tells
the man that he is being SEEN…that his illness is being recognized for
what it is…that Jesus is offering help and hope and healing when so many
others have judged and abandoned him, literally leaving him for dead.
“What have you to do with me, Jesus?” this man cries- and we can almost
hear the heartache, the despair, the desperation in his voice.

    So, what will Jesus do? Will Jesus ignore him or respond to his cries
with silence? Will Jesus ridicule him or perhaps tell him that he deserves
his suffering? What does Jesus have to do with this man, anyway? Well,
as so often happens when Jesus comes to visit, several totally unexpected
things take place. In order to rid the man and the place of these demons,
Jesus sends them into a herd of swine feeding on a nearby hillside. As
they take possession of the swine, the entire herd dashes off the cliff and
into the sea, where they drown. The swineherds, totally taken aback and
understandably upset at the loss of their herd, their livelihood, race into
town to tell everyone about the strange goings-on. And when a crowd of
the townspeople returns to the cemetery, they find the once-crazy, naked,
given-up-for-dead man clothed, quiet, and sitting at the feet of Jesus,
listening to him.

    Can’t you just hear the questions? “What’s going on here?” “Is that
really the same guy, the crazy, dangerous one?" The few witnesses to the
actual events sharing what they had seen…" Yes, that's him. And you
should have seen those pigs run off the side of the hill! Unbelievable!”
Now, you and I, we’d like to believe that had we been among those
villagers, we would have begun praising and thanking God for this most
miraculous healing…for the restoration of this suffering man to sanity
and health. But I suspect- if we are being truly honest- we would react in
much the way they did. For Luke tells us that fear seized them- not thanks
or wonder or amazement or awe, but FEAR! The presence of God’s power
in their midst was truly frightening to them, had upset the status quo,
had forced them into seeing the crazy man in a new and different way-
and they didn’t like it! Not one bit. After all, if this man Jesus could do
this, what else might he be capable of? Did they/we really want their
lives turned upside down? Far easier- and safer- to ask him to leave…so
that their ordinary lives could remain untouched, unchanged, comfortable.
And the question of the possessed man becomes their own- “What do you
have to do with us, Jesus?” For at some deep, intuitive place, they realize-
these people- that when Jesus comes to visit, he always brings the
possibility of new beginnings, and exorcises our old ways of living and

     Now, we rarely run across naked, demon-possessed people in our
everyday lives- though it did happen to me once during my student
psychiatric nursing affiliation-but that’s another story. If we did, I suspect
we would turn and run the other way, filled with fear and loathing,
perhaps tinged by pity. But that was not, IS not, Jesus. In response to the
question, “What do you have to do with us, Jesus?” Jesus reaches out to
and attracts these kinds of people- people rejected and despised by the
rest of the world…people who are literally and figuratively outsiders,
whose lives have often been torn apart by who and how they are and how
they are perceived.
     Perhaps it would be important here to look at the setting for this story
in Luke. Jesus has chosen to get into a boat and go to the “other side” of
the lake, crossing boundaries- geographic, ethnic, religious…going into
Gentile territory, the other side of the religious tracks. It is on this voyage
on the lake that Jesus calms the storm which arises, bringing peace to
wind and waves and the fear-filled hearts of the disciples. And then,
immediately upon disembarking, he comes face to face with forces which
have wrecked a man’s life and enters what might be considered the
domain of death- a graveyard, a place considered to be unclean. In fact,
this entire scene reeks of the unclean- the tombs, the territory, the pigs,
the spirits, the crazy man. But Jesus risks being considered contaminated
for the sake of this one man.

     Jesus shows up in an unclean place for the sake of one human being
who has been judged by his community and culture as being unclean…
which seems to be the last place Jesus should be. And yet, this is where
God usually shows up. In places and with people often considered
unclean, undesirable, by the rest of us. Jesus enters into this foreign
place in order to bring healing and to show, with his very life, with his
very being, that there is absolutely nowhere God is not willing to go to
reach and free and sustain and comfort and heal those who are broken
and despairing…to show God’s unrelenting love for all people, no matter

     This past Sunday, a terrible thing happened in Orlando, Florida.
A disturbed and despairing young man entered a nightclub filled with
happy, celebrating people, most of them part of the LGBTQ Latino
community in Orlando. He pulled out a semi-automatic assault rifle and
began shooting. At the end of the holocaust, fifty were dead, including
the shooter, and more than fifty wounded, the worst mass shooting in
America’s redoubtable history of mass shootings. And this at the
beginning of Islam’s holiest days, Ramadan…in the midst of the Jewish
holy day of Pentecost, Shavuot, which commemorates God’s giving of
the Law at Mount Sinai…in the midst of the LGBTQ community
worldwide celebrating Gay Pride month.

     This has been a week of sadness for so many…for grieving families
and friends. But it has also been a week of soundbites and rushes to
judgment, as it has been revealed that the shooter was a Muslim of
Afghani background, forgetting that he was born in this country and
was an American citizen. And people of faith, faith leaders, have made
statements about this being God’s retribution on the Gay community…
even to the point of saying that not enough were killed. But other
people of faith- many and diverse faiths- have been organizing memorial
services and vigils all around the country in solidarity with the LGBTQ
community. I attended one myself at First Lutheran in Greensboro on
Thursday evening, and heard wise and healing and compassionate words
from a Jewish rabbi, a devout Muslim, and several Lutheran pastors. And
many of us in attendance wept openly at the reading of the names of the
dead, as candles were lighted in their memories.

     As a person who calls myself by the responsibility-laden name of
Christian, I have been asking myself where Jesus would be standing in
all of this, my own voice echoing the question of the demon-possessed
man- “What have you to do with me, Jesus?”  And I can only come
back again and again to this story from Luke’s gospel, where Jesus places
himself firmly beside a man who has been cast out by his community….
who has been given up for dead…who has been ostracized and shunned
and judged by his own neighbors. I can only come back again and again
to a Jesus who reaches out to those deemed as unclean by their societies,
by religious laws and rules…to a Jesus who not only speaks love but
enacts it by leaving no one outside, even willingly stepping into the fray of
lives destroyed by the harsh  judgment of others who deem themselves
more holy, more worthy of God’s regard.

     In light of this week’s events, in light of this incredible story from Luke,
we might ask ourselves, Where are we willing to go? Whom are we
willing to love? In the wake of yet one more violent crime of hate and
terror, we need to remind ourselves and each other that God is always
there, in the midst of and among those in the greatest pain and need,
bringing comfort and peace and love. And so we are called to BE that
compassion, that support, that love, in whatever way it is needed. We are
called to include every person marginalized by our society, even by our
religion, in our lives, in our personal prayer; to reach out to those living in
fear and insecurity with the assurance that God loves them and so do we.
The God who IS LOVE and continually offers love is asking us to refrain
from judging, and rather just to LOVE- even those different from
ourselves…even those with whom we might disagree.

    For there is no person that is God-forsaken…unclean…outcast…
abandoned. No one is left out. To put it another way: there are no
conditions to be met to receive God’s love. You don’t have to be wealthy…
or poor. You don’t have to be from one ethnic group…or another. You
don’t have to have believed your entire life, or have come to faith only
recently or to have any faith at all. Jesus seeks out everyone- even this
unclean crazy man possessed by an unclean spirit living in an unclean
place. Just so. God loves all: male and female; young and old; gay
and straight, transgender and queer; white, black, Latino, and Asian;
believers and non-believers; Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist…
the list goes on and on and on and on…

     According to Luke, Jesus says that all those people, all of US, are HIS
people. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Only
everything. For Jesus was killed for daring to be who he was, daring to
speak the truth, daring to show love that many in his day and time and
faith community thought scandalous. “What have you to do with us,
Jesus?” EVERYTHING! And for that, I can only say, thanks be to God!


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Best-Laid Plans...

If I were in charge of the
weather, I would create a
whole spate of days like
today- temperatures in
the upper seventies, low
humidity, lots of sun and
just enough breeze to
elicit a gentle melody
from the windchimes on
my front porch. Which
is where is I have been
spending most of today
with my trusty laptop,
researching material for
the next three sermons I
will be preaching...eating
a bit of lunch...listening
to the birds whose songs
are occasionally
punctuated by
the voices of kids passing
by on the street. And
now comes the refrain of
the ice cream truck,
making its way slowly down Council Street. Just a perfect day.
   Good job, God...not that you need my consent or assent or
approval, but I am just incredibly appreciative for a day like this...a
day on which I can forget about hip pain and grief pain and anything
sad, and be simply overwhelmed and engulfed by the beauty and
wonder and perfection surrounding and enfolding me.
   We've been through a lot together these past several months,
God, and there have been days when I truly despaired, days on which
the sun seemed hidden by unbreaking clouds...days on which I hurt
so badly, both physically and psychically that I could only lie on my
bed and cry. The pain of the death of my sister, Kathy, after her
long and difficult and recurring bouts with cancer...and on the heels
of that, the exacerbation of right hip and lower back pain with
which I have been living for more than four years but which had been
quite manageable- until March.
   I know, I know, God...I really am not a good patient- probably
because I am not patient... though we've been working on that for
about fifty years, haven't we? But I finally listened to my aching
body and paid a visit to my doctor. After x-rays and a consult with
an orthopedic physician with more x-rays, I was eventually sent to a
patient- extremely patient- physical therapist. Kevin worked with
me for six weeks as we experimented with various exercises to
see which would help and which would make the pain worse. But
through it all, I had the deadline of a trip long planned to East
Africa with three friends, set to commence on May 14th. Our goal-
Kevin's and mine- was to get me to the place where I would be able
to make the long flights (two hours, then six hours, then eight
hours) from Greensboro to Atlanta to Amsterdam to Nairobi, Kenya,
since sitting for any length of time was my biggest problem.
   Who was it that said, "Life is what happens when you're making
other plans?" John Lennon, perhaps? And then there is my own
personal favorite: "Humans plan; God laughs." Well, God, I wasn't
laughing when I had to tell my three traveling companions that I
was not going to be able to travel in way, no how. I was
up to being able to sit for about two hours, but that was it...and
walking for any distance or time simply wasn't yet in the cards
for me. And my sweet friends chose to cancel, rather than go
without me.
   Sitting at my computer, canceling all of our many plans, was
so, so difficult. And even worse was contacting all of the many
friends we had planned to see in Kenya and Rwanda, friends
we had last visited in 2013, two of whom had been married in
the meantime, two babies born, and other children grown from
toddler to little boy, from little boy to big boy, from boy to
young man. You saw those tears, didn't you, God? Saw my deep,
heartfelt sadness and perhaps wept with me? I know I was not
alone in that pain.
   But...I took the time off from the church which I had planned
for the trip and which was covered anyway. And my dear friend,
Mae, came from Florida to spend the three weeks we would have
been traveling with me. And though we did many things together,
we mostly did nothing...just talked and ate and binge-watched
some TV shows... slept late and cooked together and ate out and
drank wine in the evening. She helped with tasks around the house
which were still challenging for me (like vacuuming) and we had
the joy of having TIME together, something which seems all too
elusive in this busy, busy world of ours.
   And gradually, as I continue to do my exercises, as I get out to
take short walks (up to about 40 minutes now), as I let the healing
of passing time happen, I am feeling more and more like myself.
Ibuprofen is no longer a daily part of my regimen, thankfully,
though I still have some nights when the peculiar numbness in my
right foot and lower leg wakens me and I am up for several hours
in the middle of the night. But we've been spending that time
together, haven't we, God? as I breathe and meditate and pray
in my journal with my markers and colored I stretch
into yoga poses and follow my breath, sending it into the hurting
places to bring soothing, to relax tense muscles.
   My "plans" for 2016 have certainly been set awry, God of love,
and you know that. And yet, I can sit here on this glorious day,
this perfect day, this wondrous day, and breathe a heartfelt
"thank you" for all that I am, for all that is my life. (But just so
you know, God, I will probably kvetch again when the weather
turns hot and muggy and I have to close all the windows I have
flung open today and turn on the air conditioner...just warning
you in advance, though I'm sure you've been through that with
me countless times before.)